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Faulty satellite? Robot geek squad is on the horizon

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Rocket and satellite maker Orbital ATK Inc., which was recently acquired by defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp., has begun assembling a service spacecraft known as the Mission Extension Vehicle-1. The craft is set for launch next year with service starting as soon as 2019.

Orbital ATK has snagged satellite operator Intelsat as its first customer. The spacecraft's structures, solar arrays and propellant tanks are being made in San Diego and Goleta.

In June, satellite and spacecraft manufacturer SSL announced a new business venture focused specifically on on-orbit satellite servicing. SSL was selected in February by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to be its commercial partner in a program to service satellites in geosynchronous orbit. SSL will build the spacecraft and the refueling capability while DARPA provides robotic tools and software.

The spacecraft will be test-launched in 2021. SSL is developing it at a facility in Palo Alto; two robotic arms are being built at a subdivision in Pasadena. SSL has signed its first commercial customer, Luxembourg satellite operator SES.

Some analysts question whether this robot geek squad will be needed at all. A coming boom in small, cheap satellites could replace more expensive, large satellites. Along with reduced launch costs, led by Elon Musk's SpaceX and its reusable rockets, it could be cheaper to launch several new small satellites than fix or refuel old ones.

But Christensen of Bryce Space and Technology is confident there will be a need for a high-and-low mix of satellites. She adds that cheaper launch costs could drive more repairs.

"If you've got a quarter of a billion dollars of hardware on orbit, it seems like it would be useful to figure out an application for that," Christensen said.

 

And industry officials believe orbiting robot service workers will be essential if and when humans begin assembling giant craft to explore the planets.

"Those far-reaching, species-changing discoveries (are) what gives us the passion to move forward every day with something that sounds mundane," NASA's Reed said.

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